One Sunday morning in January, Pablo Isabel Hernández set off to walk to church in San Marcos de Caiquín, a remote part of Honduras, but never arrived. One of Hernández’s brothers, who followed later, found Pablo, 33, dead on the road. He had been shot in the back.
The next day, as Thalía Rodríguez, 46, lay in bed with her partner 500 miles (800km) away in the capital, Tegucigalpa, masked armed men stormed into her flat and shot her in the head.
These two individuals lived far apart from each other, and seemingly with nothing in common, yet one aspect of their lives linked them: both were defending human rights in their community.
They were not the only human rights defenders to die that month. On 22 January, Melvin Geovany Mejía, an indigenous rights defender, died on his way to hospital after being shot in Morazán, about 400 miles north of the capital.
Isabel Albaladejo, representative of the Office of the UNHigh Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Honduras, believes that three killings in less than a month shows how it has become an increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders in the country.
“The situation is getting worse,” she says. “Without doubt, Honduras is a very dangerous country for the defence of human rights.”
In 2021, the OHCHR recorded 302 attacks against human rights defenders (209 defenders and 93 journalists). Of those, 10 were murdered. In 2018, Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur, called Honduras one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders in Latin America. Four years on, the outlook is still bleak.
Albaladejo says: “One thing particular to Honduras is the use of the penal law against those who defend human rights, in addition to lack of judicial independence.”
In October 2021, the national congress of Honduras passed a series of reforms to the penal code that carry prison terms for protests, for example. On 9 January, six human rights defenders from the community of Guapinol, who opposed an open-cast iron-oxide mine that threatened the community’s water sources, such as the Guapinol River, were found guilty of the crimes of illegal deprivation of liberty and aggravated damages against the contractor of the company Inversiones Los Pinares, to widespread indignation from human rights groups.
Conflicts between companies and communities over land contribute to the dire situation as does a lack of investigation and adequate punishment for crimes, say environmental and land defenders, who believe impunity reigns.
All of this is exacerbated by huge socioeconomic inequalities, Albaladejo adds. In July last year, Roberto David Castillo – former head of the dam company Desarrollos Energéticos – was found guilty over the killing of the indigenous environmentalist leader Berta Cáceres.
The government’s mechanism for the protection of journalists, human rights defenders and operators of justice, created in 2015, lacks uniform criteria and is ineffective, says Human Rights Watch.
According to Albaladejo, prosecutors have only formally laid charges in one case out of the 236 complaints they received between March 2018 and October 2021. The cases of 19 defenders murdered between 2020 and 2021 remain unsolved, she says.
“It’s difficult to talk about the hardships that human rights defenders face in Honduras,” says Berta Oliva, founder of Cofadeh, an organisation helping the relatives of disappeared people in the country, who worked with Pablo Hernández.
“I try to energise myself with good vibes and think that I’m working for the common good, that there isn’t a dark force that can stop the light. But this is an ideal,” says Oliva. “Our reality is something else. The reality is the murders of Pablo and Thalía in one week.”
Hernández’s brother, Alejandro, remembers him as sociable and always smiling. He loved teaching his children to sing and dreamed of being able to give them an education so they could enter a profession – something he did not have the opportunity to do. He leaves behind a wife and four children.
He belonged to the Lenca indigenous people, was heavily involved with the church and was a member of a network of human rights defenders. Hernández often appeared on Radio Tenán, a community station that regularly reported on corruption and questioned the local administration of San Marcos de Caiquín.
The news of his death did not come as a shock to Alejandro. Hernández had received death threats in March 2020. “Pablo told me he had been threatened and that he was well prepared – through his work in the church – for anything that should happen,” he says.
“He believed he had to keep working. When he spoke on the radio, he wasn’t scared. He was aware of what might happen and even I had prepared myself for [his death].”
Hernandez’s murder is under investigation and his body was exhumed on 16 February for forensic analysis by the public prosecutor’s office.
Those who defend LGBTQ+ rights are also in a vulnerable position in Honduras. Thalia Rodríguez was a transgender rights defender and heavily involved in advocating for people with HIV. The police arrested a member of MS-13, one of the most notorious gangs in Honduras, over her murder, but he has been released because of a lack of evidence.
Sandra Patargo, protection coordinator for the Americas at Frontline Defenders, says: “We have been documenting increased violence against trans defenders in the country and many of them are leaving because they’re not finding sustainable solutions.”
Cattrachas, a Honduran advocacy organisation that documents violence against LGBTQ+ people in Honduras, says 125 transgender people have been murdered since 2009. In the past three years, six transgender rights defenders have died, including Bessy Ferrera who was shot in July 2019 on the streets of Comayagüela, close to the capital. The OHCHR, meanwhile, recorded seven transgender rights defenders as victims of attacks in 2021.
Astrid Ramos, a lawyer at Cattrachas, and her colleague Nahil Zerón remember Rodríguez as someone who was always willing to help anyone in need.
“Whenever she talked about trans rights, she always thought about how things could be better for generations to come,” says Ramos. “She was fearless, strong, brave. She loved life, dancing, singing, karaoke. She loved the beach, and the sea. She loved to cook for her friends.”
Rihanna Ferrera, a close friend of Rodríguez and also a trans activist, feels pain and worry at the loss of another colleague. She visited Rodríguez’s home weeks before she died and neighbours told her Rodríguez had been threatened and attacked.
Ferrera credits Rodríguez with being “a great leader” of the transgender movement. She remembers: “Thalía always used to tell me: ‘I’m like a phoenix rising from the ashes.’ She said that we had to continue to raise our voices to eradicate discrimination and to make sure that [our human rights] and our gender are recognised.”
Ferrera, and other activists, have some hope that the arrival of a new government, led by a female president, may bring much needed change in Honduras. Xiomara Castro, of the centre-left Libre party, has promised to fight corruption, crime and poverty, as well as improve conditions for women.
“The new government has announced publicly that it wishes to create a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders,” says Albaladejo. “I believe this is an important first step.”